Well, who’d’ve thought it, eh? Philip MacDonald first featured in my reading life in 1-star ignominy, and here he is not just beating all-comers to feature my 400th blog post, but doing so with a book that I — against my better judgement, nature, and previous standards — unabashedly loved with every fibre of my being. Quite the turnaround, and part of why I persevere with intially-disappointing authors. Just to clear something up from the off: no, I would not classify this as an impossible crime, despite its inclusion on the Ronald Lacourbe list being what brought it to my attention in the first place, but that’s hardly the first time this has happened….
Deemed ‘An Exercise in Crime’, the book is perhaps best known for telling its story out of sequence: we begin with an epilogue (uh-oh…) in which a large sum of cash — £287,499 3s 10½d, some £13 million in today’s market — is delivered to the Naval, Military and Cosmopolitan Assurance Company for reasons no-one there is able to discern. Come the end of the story, this will indeed make perfect sense; for now, let us go back in time…
…some six or so months, to Francis Xavier ‘F.X.’ Benedik, figurehead and driving influence of Rynox (Unlimited), a company whose precise business dealings are never made clear but do not matter: Rynox, we are left in no doubt, is Going Places, and it is Benedik who has made it happen. And so his murder at the hands of a disgruntled ex-associate could not come at a more crucial juncture in proceedings — had it been delayed by mere weeks, chances are Rynox would pull through, but his untimely death casts that in doubt. I could say more, and I originally did, but that’s really all you should know plot-wise going in.
It is the telling of this plot that really makes the book for me. Evincing MacDonald’s burgeoning film-writing career, it is split into three ‘Reels’, each divided into various Sequences which vary in their modes of telling. The first Reel is straight prose, detailing the characters in the piece up to Benedik’s murder and capturing characters in sly and trenchant observations such as a theatre clerk nursing a terrible hangover at work, Petronella Rickforth’s engagement to F.X.’s son Tony having “broken, at least temporarily, more hearts than any feminine decision in London for the past six months”, or the following exchange between the president of the company receiving that money and his secretary Miss Winter:
Very untidily heaped in [the room’s] very tidy centre were the sacks. Miss Winter was bending down, reading the label.
“Got a knife?” asked the President.
Miss Winter had a knife. Miss Winter always had everything.
It’s on the second Reel that things change: a cavalcade of police reports, crime scene maps, letters, a Coroner’s summation to a jury at the inquest, and internal police memoranda that outline the case, the investigation, and the conclusions, as well as the consequences for Rynox itself. It sounds gimmicky, and it probably is, but it’s also charming as all hell. If there’s one flaw, it’s that I’m still not entirely sure what a ‘Big Four beard’ is:
Every police constable carries a Big Four beard in his pocket. Some police constables, realising this, do nothing about it; others, realising this, do far too much. Neither class achieve the beard. Others neither miss opportunities nor try to make opportunities. They, of course, do not get the beard either, but they do at least go some way towards earning it.
Yup, no idea.
By the time Reel Three rolls around most readers will have figured out what is going on, and to a certain extent the events herein add nothing except a distraction. It’s not a traditional detective novel at all, but at the same time you will have the perfect opportunity to solve what’s going on. The slight improvisational structure will not be to the taste of every reader — and I’m more surprised than most to find out how much I enjoyed this aspect of it — but again for me it’s made by the character beats MacDonald effortlessly works in: the entirely irrelevant details of Mrs Pardee and her cloven palate in detailing the unthinking cruelty of immature young men, or the sparklingly beautiful succinctness in his descriptions:
Captain James laughed once more. A hundred tin cans fell down twenty-five uncarpeted steps.
Alongside this, you also get occasional comments from the author at various points, like a benign Statler and Waldorf tapping you on the shoulder at the theatre and going “Hmm, that seems like it may be relevant, eh?”. Precisely what these bring to the experience will vary from reader to reader, but I didn’t mind them even if I’ll happily admit that Christianna Brand or John Dickson Carr would have done far more with them. And I don’t even mind that MacDonald engages in some entirely pointless obfuscation of dates, giving us the likes of Thursday 28th March 193– when there was only one Thurdsay 28th March in that entire decade.
If this sounds like I commend its form over its function that’s sort of intentional, because I don’t want to get too deeply into precisely what happens. I feel I’ve done a terrible job here, but at the same time I don’t know how else I could possibly write about this. MacDonald’s structuring is good, the experiment of switching the prologue and epilogue pays out nicely, and his prose is delightfully readable. In short, despite not being the most convoluted of narratives — and I’m starting to think he didn’t really do convoluted narratives — it still provides easily more than enough of merit and note to engage the interested, among which I happily count myself. For those of your tiring of the same old Genius Amateurs and obscure clewing and clod-headed policemen, or for those of you who just fancy stretching your experience into something a little wilder, this could not come more highly recommended.
If you’re buying this HarperCollins Detective Club reprint — it’s a beautiful and very affordable edition — be aware that the final 30 or so pages are an Anthony Gethryn short story entitled ‘The Wood-for-the-Trees’ (1953) which is not mentioned up front at all. I was a little disappointed to come to the end of the story so suddenly, anticipating a delightful stroll in over the last stretch, only to hit the Prologue (at the end, of course) and then a throughly forgettable ‘mass murderer’ tale. The reader is warned!
Ted Gioia @ Postmodern Mystery: Long before the rise of the postmodern novel, MacDonald anticipated many of its techniques. He wreaks havoc with conventional narrative structure—opening the book with its epilogue and closing his novel with an account of the story’s beginnings. He reveals a postmodern zeal for texts within the text, devoting a substantial portion of his story to an array of disparate documents—diary entries, business correspondence, personal letters, police reports, memoranda, etc.—which impart a sense of discontinuity and authorial absence to a novel. But strangest of all, he reveals a cavalier disregard for all the expectations readers typically bring to detective stories.
Kate @ CrossExaminingCrime: A mystery being simple can be a great flaw in some books, especially if the writer takes 300+ pages to tell it. Thankfully though this is not the case here, as Macdonald writes all of it in a wonderfully entertaining manner and keeps the story short and sweet at 167 pages. Moreover the action of the story keeps your attention as you read to see how things will turn out. The only criticism I would level at the plot is perhaps the lack of surprise in the prologue, which would have had an added twist if it had been written by someone like Anthony Berkeley.